Birth of the Iron Horse: General Motors Attempts a Tractor

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Samson Model M tractor.
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Samson Iron Horse.
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Samson Iron Horse.
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Iron Horse.
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Grain drill and Samson.
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Mowing hay with a Samson.
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Hay rake and Samson.
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Samson Sieve-Grip tractor.
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Plowing with a Samson.

We’ve all heard a story about the old farmer who reluctantly bought his first tractor after farming with horses his whole life.

He did pretty well until he got to the end of the furrow, but as he intended to turn around, out of habit he hauled back mightily on the steering wheel and yelled, “Whoa!” as loud as he could. The tractor was no horse, however, and plowed majestically through the fence row and into the creek.

A few manufacturers tried to make the transition easier for such farmers by building tractors that were started, stopped and steered by reins, just like a team of horses. An unlikely example of these manufacturers turns out to be a present-day automotive giant.

The Samson Tractor Company, a division of General Motors Corporation, was located in Janesville, Wis., and was the brainchild of William Crapo Durant. Billy Durant, as he was known, was a colorful product promoter who made and lost several fortunes in the early days of the automobile business. In 1918, Durant was the chairman of GM, owned the majority of the company’s stock, and was determined to battle Henry Ford and his successful Fordson tractor for dominance over the agricultural equipment industry.

In mid-1918, GM, at Durant’s insistence, bought Samson Tractor Works, a Stockton, Calif., firm that produced a somewhat-successful machine called the Samson Sieve-Grip tractor. Meanwhile, the Janesville Machine Company was busy building plows, cultivators and planters in Janesville. Durant asked that firm’s president, Joseph A. Craig, to manage the newly devised tractor plant. Craig agreed on the condition that GM would build a new factory at the Janesville site to build the tractors. Durant agreed and the deal was sealed.

The new company continued to make the Samson Sieve-Grip, which cost $1,750 (about $21,000 in today’s terms) and was no competition for the far-more affordable Fordson at $625 ($7,600 today). GM engineers designed a new tractor, the Samson Model M – patterned after the Fordson – and began building it on May 1, 1919. The Samson M weighed about 600 pounds more than the Fordson and outperformed its rival in Nebraska tests. The Samson M, at $650, cost a little more than the Fordson, but fenders, platform and belt pulley were included. These features were extra on a Fordson.

In late 1918, GM bought the rights to a machine named the Jim Dandy Motor Cultivator. Durant apparently thought that farmers would feel more comfortable with leather reins in their hands than a steering wheel, or he may have wanted to take advantage of the then-current popularity of motor cultivators. Regardless, the new machine was fitted with reins and operated somewhat like a team of horses. The cultivator was renamed the Samson Iron Horse Model D and introduced in early 1919. The Iron Horse cost $630 and was described as follows in a 1919 Samson sales brochure:

Wonderful is the only word that fully fits and applies to the Samson Iron Horse. For years it has been common conversation in agricultural circles that some day, somebody would bring out a four-wheel-drive tractor that would do all of the jobs on the farm that can be done with a 2- or 3-horse team.

The Samson Iron Horse is a four-wheel-drive tractor; turns short; can be operated by man, woman, or boy and is driven by lines as you drive a team of horses, either from the tractor or from implement in use, with marvelous ease and perfect control at all times. There are no brakes, foot pedals, or clutches to contend with. It eliminates the uncertainty of wild, nervous and fractious horses, (and) does not crush or pack the ground because with traction on all four wheels heavy weight is unnecessary.

The little Samson Iron Horse weighed 1,900 pounds and was powered by a 4-cylinder GM engine with 171 cubic inches of displacement. The tractor had no differential and was controlled by levers acting as belt tighteners, although leather reins could be attached to these levers to permit operation from a trailed implement like a plow.

The company’s advertisements focused on the machine’s horse-like qualities: “Driven with lines by one or two hands with perfect ease. Release and it goes forward; pull back and it backs up; pull to right and it goes to right; pull to left and it goes to left.” Each of the engine’s heavy canvas belts drove a shaft that powered a chain-and-sprocket final drive on both sides of the machine. The drive system was geared to the closely spaced drive wheels, which provided the tractor’s four-wheel-drive feature.

To further convince reluctant farmers of the tractor’s merits, a company brochure compared the yearly $831 cost of owning and maintaining three horses, to the Iron Horse’s annual operating expense of $375.60. The company also claimed that the Iron Horse was able to do many jobs that horses couldn’t, like run the feed grinder, corn sheller, pump, cider mill and wood saw, as well as turning a grindstone – “the job that every boy hates to do.” The sales brochure also listed all the farm chores which an Iron Horse could perform with ease, including planting and cultivating two rows of corn at one time, as well as tillage work, like plowing with a single-bottom sulky, discing and harrowing. According to the company, using the Iron Horse to pull a corn or grain binder, mow, rake and collect hay with a loader meant “you and your boys are independent of high-price help during harvest. A 12-year-old boy can drive it and will be tickled to do it. The Iron Horse will help to keep the boys at home on the farm.” The Iron Horse was built to carry a 2-row mounted corn planter and a cultivator, or a mower with a 6-1/2-foot cutter bar that was mounted across the front of the tractor.

The company’s first venture, the Samson Model M, was a good tractor and sold well. It produced a minimum profit for GM, but the Model M couldn’t begin to make up the financial losses incurred by the Iron Horse. The Horse’s design was faulty because the machine was easily tipped over, and the canvas belts often failed.

The biggest hindrance to sales came from the fact that the company misjudged horse farmers, who for the most part still wanted real horses at the end of their reins. These problems, combined with the agricultural depression of 1921 and resulting lack of tractor demand, left GM with thousands of unsold Iron Horses. Durant was forced to resign in 1920 because of his poor business decisions. GM abandoned the farm equipment business to Ford and the others by 1922, and converted the Janesville facility to a Chevrolet automobile assembly plant.

In a 1962 “Reflections” column in Implement & Tractor magazine, E.J. Baker Jr. recalled the old line-driven Iron Horse tractors when he wrote:

It was devised by some farmers and/or dealers around El Paso, Ill. They organized the SK&S Tractor Co. to build and market it. One “S” was for Skaggs. Can’t recall the names of the others.

The machine was named the Iron Horse. It had four-wheel drive with an all-belt drive and transmission. There were no steering wheels, the tractor being steered by applying the power to one set of wheels on a side and not the other. The Iron Horse turned and skidded around like a Cat.

The two guide lines controlled tight-and-loose drive pulleys with which the tractor could be gid’upped or whoa’ed. Can’t recall how it was backed up, but it could be.

The Iron Horse could make a beautiful demonstration, even in plowing corn for which it had clearance, so that it was a general purpose tractor. General Motors, who were aspiring to put a cocklebur under Henry Ford’s ambitious tractor tail, proceeded to buy out Messrs. SK&S and brought the Iron Horse to Janesville, Wis., where they had bought out the Janesville Machine Co. to become the nucleus of the projected Samson Tractor Co., carrying the GM brand and ear notches.

Bill Clarke was sales manager for GM’s Samson Tractor Company, and Baker, who always referred to himself as “The Reflector,” wrote about Clarke’s role:

The Reflector recalls vividly the show put on with the Iron Horse by the Samson Tractor Co. at the Wisconsin State Fair. Bill Clarke was at the fair in charge of the Samson exhibit. He could drive mules where they didn’t want to go, so the Iron Horse was a cinch for Bill. He made it do a polka in time with the music.

Next season Samson wasn’t saying much about the Iron Horse. The Reflector cornered Bill somewhere and asked, “How come? Where’s that rising three-year-old Iron Horse? Did it have a splint?” Bill looked confused and a trifle shifty. Then he muttered, “‘Twas the belts.”

Apparently when it got (hot and) humid, the canvas belts all shrunk up tight on the pulleys, both forward and reverse, and the only place the tractor could go was straight up. Leather belts would have acted differently but cost more. General Motors charged the Iron Horse up to experience. It was stated that GM had dropped $30 million in the Samson Tractor Co.

At least two Samson Iron Horse tractors survived even though the attempt to woo farmers from their fillies failed. A photo of a nicely restored Iron Horse, resplendent in light gray paint with bright-red wheels and trim, and owned by Eldon Coates of Zwingle, Iowa, appeared in the book This Old Tractor. There’s also an Iron Horse at the Door Prairie Auto Museum at LaPorte, Ind. FC

Sarn Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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